By Ashley Samelson McGuire
Wednesday President Obama raised eyebrows in the human rights world when he bestowed lavish praise on Indonesia‘s human rights record, particularly with regards to free speech and religious freedom. Specifically the President gave kudos to the most populous Muslim country in the world for the “spirit of tolerance that is written into your constitution, symbolized in your mosques and churches and temples, and embodied in your people.”
Yet just seven months ago, Indonesia’s highest court issued a landmark ruling widely considered to be a major setback to speech and religious rights. The Constitutional Court upheld the constitutionality of Indonesia’s Blasphemy Act, which criminalizes speech or acts considered offensive to government approved religions as well as “deviations from teachings of religion considered fundamental by scholars of the relevant religion.”
Even if we start where the president starts, with the constitution, we run headfirst into serious concerns about the breadth of liberty the document outlines. The preamble states that, “the national independence of Indonesia shall be formulated into a constitution of the sovereign Republic of Indonesia which is based on the belief in the “one and only God.” While varying interpretations of this provision abound, it raises immediate implications for polytheists or atheists. The provision is further complicated by the fact that the Indonesian government only recognizes six religions: Islam, Protestant Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.
Considering that a stated purpose of the Blasphemy Act is to “channel… religiosity” toward these six religions, “tolerance” by Indonesian standards starts to look rather anemic.
The Blasphemy Act provides for both civil and criminal penalties for those who insult approved religions and those who attempt to persuade others to adhere to unofficial religions. This translates into a de facto ban on proselytizing that lends itself to overly broad and arbitrary interpretations by local governments. For example, in September 2005, three Christian women were sentenced to three years imprisonment for conducting a Christian youth program, even though the Muslim children in the program had parental permission to attend, and none of the children had converted to Christianity.
Interestingly however, the Act is used largely as a tool for favored or mainstream religions to clamp down on derivates from those religions. For example, the police arrested the leader of the Sion City of Allah Christian sect and six of his followers for straying from “correct Christian teachings” because the sect is based on only one book of the Bible (the Book of Jeremiah).
In 2008 the government issued a joint decree outlawing the Ahmadiyya, an Islamic religious movement founded in the late 19th Century that believes that Mohammed was not the last prophet of Islam. The decree ordered, “as long as they [Ahmadiyya] consider themselves to hold to Islam, to discontinue the promulgation of interpretations and activities that are deviant from the principal teachings of Islam.”
Perhaps the strangest implementation of the Blasphemy Act was to imprison Sumardi Tappaya, a Muslim and a high school religion teacher, for six months for “deviancy” after a relative accused him of whistling during prayers.
The great irony in President Obama’s choice of “tolerant” to describe Indonesia lies in the fact that he is visiting just months after its highest court upheld a law that essentially sanctions intolerance and places the government in the role of arbiter and judge in private matters of conscience, a law that has seen more than 150 individuals detained or arrested in recent years.
Perhaps of even greater concern is the underlying assumption in the president’s praise: namely that tolerance is enough, or even the right word when speaking of religious freedom. “Tolerance” implies that the thing being “tolerated” is a negative force to be kept at bay. It is this very philosophy actually, that underpins the concept of a blasphemy law. In theory, a blasphemy law keeps everyone from offending each other, and ultimately from harming each other. In reality, it dismantles the core of religion (as truth claims will inevitably conflict), and hoists majority religions into positions of power over minority or disfavored religions.
Just as the president has come under fire for replacing the broad principle of freedom of religion with the far-narrower “freedom of worship,” he should be scrutinized for supplanting religious freedom with religious tolerance.
In both instances he truncates the rights he claims to praise, in a diplomatic environment where his words can easily be interpreted as a license to limit freedom.
Above all, the president’s remarks Wednesday were a missed opportunity to remind Indonesia of its international commitments to ensuring religious freedom for all faiths, not just the six it likes, and to remind the world that America does not condone policies that restrict fundamental human rights in favor of hurt feelings.
Ashley Samelson McGuire works in International Programs for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. She writes about her personal views on faith, feminism, and politics at www.rogueinrouge.com.